Holiday spirit at cemetery: Patriotism, appreciation is backbone of Wreaths Across America

Story and photos by Michelle Schneider PV Photojournalist

December 12th, 2019 | In Focus, News
 Wreaths were placed all throughout the West Point Cemetery Saturday during a Wreaths Across America event. No grave went uncovered thanks to generous donations from sponsorships and non-profits.  Photos by Michele Schneider/PV
 A young family learns the value of tradition and honor found by sacrificing veterans’ lives  through the laying of wreaths at the Wreaths Across America ceremony.  Photos by Michele Schneider/PV
 The West Point Glee Club sings to commemorate fallen service members during the Wreaths Across America ceremony Saturday at the West Point Old Cadet Chapel.
 Hundreds of local civilian community members make their way to the Wreaths Across America trucks to unload and place wreaths upon graves Saturday at the West Point Cemetery.

Several years ago, a truckload of over 5,000 balsam tree branches was about to go to waste, but Morrill Worcester knew exactly how to put them to good use as the owner of the Worcester Wreath Company.
Worcester’s idea to place wreaths upon veterans’ graves was sparked by his patriotism and deep appreciation for those who died to protect America’s freedom. With the help of Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, many  volunteers placed them on graves at the Arlington National Cemetery.
The Wreaths Across America story began as a small-scale event in December 1992 and has grown into a beloved international symbol for honoring a veteran’s life and service, especially given through sacrifice. Approximately 1.6 million wreaths have been placed on graves throughout over 1,400 locations in all 50 U.S. states, veteran cemeteries in foreign lands and at sea.
A veteran’s wreath is made up of 10 balsam branches and according to Worcester, each branch helps describe the characteristics and qualities that make up an American veteran.
• The first branch stands for the veteran’s faith in God.
• The second branch stands for the love for one another.
• The third branch stands for the veteran’s strength, work ethic and character.
• The fourth branch stands for the veteran’s honesty and integrity.
• The fifth branch stands for the veteran’s humility, selflessness and modesty.
• The sixth branch stands for the veteran’s ambitions and aspirations.
• The seventh branch stands for the veteran’s optimism for his or her fellow Americans and for our country.
• The eighth branch stands for the veteran’s concern for the future and future generations.
• The ninth branch stands for the veteran’s pride in carrying out his or her duties.
• The 10th and final branch stands for the veteran’s hopes and dreams that did not always come true but left him or her with no regrets.
“Ask yourself. Where would I be? What would my life be like were it not for our veterans who stepped up for us time and time again over the course of this nation’s history?” Worcester said.
The 10th annual Wreaths Across America ceremony was hosted Saturday at the West Point Cemetery. The tradition of laying wreaths began in 2010 with six people and 70 wreaths, and for the last five years, the entire cemetery has been covered due to generous sponsorships of various non-profits and volunteers.
Worcester’s wife, Karen, is the executive director of Wreaths Across America. She shared that over 2.5 million volunteers partake in laying of the wreath ceremonies throughout the world, and a third of them are children.
“Many families can take their kids to those sacred grounds and teach them what you think is important for them to know about our past and about our future. That’s very special, especially around the holidays when families are missing their loved ones so very much,” Worcester said. “The laying of the wreaths is not just for decoration, it’s a gift from grateful Americans for those who have sacrificed and served to make us free. It is also the most incredible history lesson by introducing kids to the people who gave them freedom.”
Many of the people in attendance were members of the local civilian community who have veteran family members and friends buried at the West Point Cemetery. Some people said Wreaths Across America means finding a sense of closure and to remember their fallen loved ones, while others said they find it as a sense of patriotic duty to honor service members.
Diane Malichio is a mother of four children whose husband was friends with a colonel buried at the West Point Cemetery, she said. Most years, she brings her entire family because she feels it’s a great way to honor the veterans who served them. This is her third year in attendance.
“I bring myself and my kids to show the example of honoring the military and those who serve our country, and I want them to learn that honor and dedication through service,” Malichio said. “The wreath to me is like a hug with arms of love. It’s a universal symbol of love and appreciation, and laying the wreath is about caring for people who volunteer their time and dedicate themselves to military service.”
Liz Santamorena, her husband and two daughters have been attending Wreaths Across America at the West Point Cemetery for eight years. She said that she feels it’s a wonderful cause, a great way to start the holiday season and makes them feel patriotic to attend.
“This is our way to give back, thank them and feel connected. West Point is such a special place and I’m honored to live in this area and be a part of this,” Santamorena said. “All these young, old and new military families—it’s a great honor to be around them and be part of this beautiful and historic place.”